Reading Journal Entry: The Game, by Laurie R. King

Russell and Holmes go to India, yay!

Laurie King pretty much rocks. She's extraordinarily competent. I'm not sure how I missed this when it came out originally, but I'm glad to read it now. Spies, maharajas, cruise ships, explosives, planes, trains, Tibetan monks, Kipling, tigers, etc.

Guns on mantelpiece in first act go off satisfactorily in third act.

And now I have to read Lord Kim.

Free Comic Book Day - not free for retailers

I didn't know that!

I'll be sure to say an extra-nice thank you to my local comic book retailer next Saturday.

Reading Journal Entry: Tinker, by Wen Spencer

No Great Books this week - that's because I am gearing up to read George R. R. Martin's A Feast For Crows. I finally got to the top of the waiting list at the library. And it's a pretty hefty volume, even for me - I want to have time to enjoy it. That's why I gulped down the YA books for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday over the weekend - Tinker I finished mid-day today, and I've started on The Game by Laurie R. King book which should go down by tonight at the latest, leaving me Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to devote to George.

As if you care.

Tinker sounded like a nice piece of candy as reviewed by Dionne at It's Not Chick Porn earlier this month. Right up my alley. So I waved down the magic SPL bus and climbed aboard (<---metaphor).

Tinker is an 18 year old chick who owns a working junkyard in an alternate reality Pittsburgh which spends most of the time in Elfland. She's just beginning to discover her girly parts and gets all tingly when she rescues a hunky Elf-lord who, it so happens, rescued her from a ravening beast a couple years earlier. Oh, and it just so happens that she's the smartest person in the planet and the only person who can Save the Universe from deadly peril! Stop me if you've heard this before.

Tinker is a great character, and the steampunk elfland junkyard is impossible to resist. The action is very fast-paced, which rescues the book from some minorly sloppy writing (I kept wanting to get out my red editor's penvil) and some pretty wooden characters - Wolfwind, for example, who never really makes sense. At all.

Loaded with sterotypes, but fun stuff.I can see why the series is a top seller.

Pacing, folks, PACING! Pacing is KEY!

Nice things happening to nice people

Leafing through my latest issue of Publisher's Weekly I spotted two positive reviews for two of my favorite authors, who also happen to be denizens of my blogroll.

Laurie R. King's Mutterings provide tantalizing personal & professional glimpses into her life. Her newest, The Art of Detection, received a is called a "an intelligent, satisfying novel of suspense". I can't wait to read it - and coincidentally, I'm currently immersed in The Game. Art promises to bring about the long-awaited collision between her Kate Martinelli series and the Holmes pastiche Mary Russell series.

Stephen Barnes talks about writing, politics, and martial arts (among other topics) at Dar Kush. I've been a big fan of the alternate history series that begins with Lion's Blood.

His forthcoming Great Sky Woman (and 20th novel? where do you find the time?) is called "daringly epic in scope" with "impressive atmospheric detail". It's set in prehistoric Africa, under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. I'll definitely read it.

Interestingly, although both Barnes and King are 'genre' authors (Barnes - SF, King - mystery), and the books' descriptions seem to fit, neither of these reviews were placed in the genre reviews sections (otherwise known as the 'genre ghetto'). Is this a prediction of mass market appeal? I wonder.

Congratulations to King and Barnes on the positive reviews.

Seattle Times: The Changing Face of High School Reading Lists

Bookslut linked to this interesting article from my local paper, the Seattle Times, about high school reading lists.

Schools' reading lists get a rewrite

Largely in response to their more ethnically diverse student bodies, high schools in the area are broadening their literature selections to include more contemporary writers, more women and more minorities.
In the past, advocates for teaching the great works of Western civilization insisted the classics were essential to develop citizens in a democracy. Nesting remembers hearing in college the argument that you must read "Hamlet" to be a completely realized person.

"You know, you don't," she said. "There's no one book you need to read to become a human being."

I think it's great (and essential) that they are choosing more modern books as well as classics for high school reading. But I'm going to quibble with the statement about Hamlet.

Reading Hamlet isn't necessary to be a 'completely realized person'. But it is necessary for being a completely culturally fluent person in English-speaking society.

Hamlet is one of the iconic pieces of literature; not because it's so awesome (which maybe it is and maybe it isn't) but because it is so pervasive. References to Hamlet are ubiquitous.

To be or not to be. Neither a borrower nor a lender be. The slings and arrows of outraged fortune. Music hath power to sooth the savage breast. Alas, poor Yorick. There more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Frailty, thy name is woman! Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!

If you haven't read Hamlet you won't, at some fundamental level, get it.

I am probably more aware of this phenomenon than most because of the years I spent living in a foreign country.

Every culture has a shared heritage of words and stories. To be fully fluent in a foreign language you need to have access to this shared culture as well as the vocabulary lists and verb declensions. Otherwise you won't get it a lot of the time.

To give an American example, someone says 'I cannot tell a lie', and everyone laughs, and if you don't know that story you're left feeling like an idiot.

Hamlet is one of the keystones to our culture.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that I take this side of the argument, not given the project I've embarked on.

Maybe I should tackle Shakespeare next?

Reading Journal Entry: Smith, by Leon Garfield

One last Leon Garfield book for the week....

Smith is a dirty pickpocket in 18th Century London. He picks the pocket of a country gentleman, and witnessing his murder a few minutes later. What is the treasure in his possession, that men will kill for? He can't tell - neither he nor anyone he trusts is able to read....

Garfield is a true genius at evoking Victorian London, and his chops are eally showcased in this book about the poorest of London's poor. Smith is an engaging kid and his friends are as attractive...a blind Justice, a swash-buckling highwaymen, etc. The conclusion didn't, on the other hand, make a whole lot of sense. I was left scratching my head.

Reading Journal Entry: Black Jack, by Leon Garfield

Leon Garfield is my friend*.

He writes creepy kids books.

Like this one. Which starts with a hanging. Continues with the resurrection of the dead. Involves midgets. Madmen. Robbery. Murder. Moonlight. Poor Bartholemew Dorking, apprentice draper, never has a chance - of returning to his normal life, that is. Not with the immense and murderous Black Jack, seven feet tall, lurking in the shadows.

Very, very good fun.

*In a strictly imaginary sense.

Throwing stones.....

Plagiarism scandals? A new one every week, it seems.

Today's object lesson is Kaavya Viswanathan, author of a chick-lit-ish piece of trash that apparently made the best-seller lists and commanded a huge $500,000 advance (even if you assume it was inflated by a factor of ten, that's $50,000 and huge).

I'm reluctant to assume the worst of these authors. Especially in the latest scandal - involving a young, attractive woman who received a sizable advance. I'm seeing a lot of venom and I'm sure a lot of it is due to envy.

She claims it was unconscious plagiariam.

Unintentional plagiarism - it does happen. There are cases that no-one disputes.

So tell me, how much bile are you willing to throw at Helen Keller?

Do you have the power to see into Viswanathan's head and tell whether she's lying?

I don't....

Reading Journal Entry: Grand & Humble, by Brent Hartinger

Three children's books kick off the week, all thanks to A Fuse #8 Production (I think).

Grand & Humble, by Brent Hartinger, is about two high school boys, Harlan and Manny. Harlan is the son of a high-powered politican; popular, athletic, dating the prom queen. Manny is a theater geek (with All That That Entails). Harlan has begun having weird premonitions of disaster; Manny ominous nightmares. Just when you begin to think, hey, what exactly is the connection here? Everything snaps into focus.

Almost a mood piece, this is excellent, excellent work. My one quibble is that I wanted a more solid sense of place from the city where Manny and Harlan live. Grand & Humble is the intersection of two streets; the cover art is really what drew me to the book. But the evocative image of the two street lights isn't matched by a corresponding mental image of the intersection.

Reading Journal Entry: To Visit The Queen by Diane Duane

This juvenile fantasy is more homework on my part to decide whether I want to subscribe to The Big Meow. The answer is no.

On the plus side: cute cat conceits, nice use of time travel and historical personages.

Negatives: too much exposition marred the pacing, I guessed the big 'plot twist' early on, a random character/species brought in Deus Ex Machina fashion to resolve the main crisis and, apparently, tie this more strongly to an earlier volume.

Not compelling enough that I want to seek out more, so, that's it for me.

Great Book: The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthone

The fourth book that succoured me during my recent travels was another old friend, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I believe this was on my reading list in English class in high school.

One of the original American novels, it seems much older than it is (1850) because of the language and setting. Hawthorne's characters are early members of Puritan Salem, when the area was first being settled, and he doesn't bother resisting the urge to sprinkle his text with 'hither' and 'wherefore' in order to capture the feeling of the remote period.

The story is of three individuals in the aftermath of a sin. Hester Prynne, the adulterous wife, was forced by her pregnancy to openly acknowledge her sin and bear her punishment in front of the eyes of the world. Roger Chillingworth, as the cuckolded husband names himself, hides his shame; no-one knows he is the injured party, and no-one knows about the secret lust for revenge that he cherishes. Reverend Dimmesdale hides his sin as well, and the poison of pretending to be a holy man while his lover and child live in shame percipitates in him a deadly illness.

This could have been a love story, but it's emphatically not. Hawthorne so completely dismisses the sinful event itself that the action starts perhaps a year later, as Hester is brought to justice both before the public and her returning spouse.

Hawthorne doesn't whitewash the sin that Hester and Dimmesdale committed by appealing to the love between them (although Hester does so, briefly). A life for them together elsewhere is an unhealthy dream.

Strikingly, he seems to give full credence to the reality of the 'witches' tortured and killed in Salem several years later. Mistress Hibbins, who we are informed will be executed in the infamous trials, features as a character who tempts Hester to Devil worship. What's up with that? It seems to mar the otherwise very strong psychological realism.

Yay audio books on MP3 player! Boo Flo Gibson! Why do I keep listening to books she reads? Oh, right, because they're free. She was not a good choice for this book. Nathaniel Hawthorne in the introduction writes of himself as a young man. Hester Prynne is a young woman. Dimmesdale is a young man, if prematurely aged by his illness. She manages to make them all sound like cackling harpies.

Reading Journal Entry: Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi, by Cecil Roth

A book group selection. This is non-fiction month, and the first time I've attended since December. Dona Gracia, of the title, was one of the most powerful women of the 16th century, and I've never heard of her before. A fascinating figure. Her family was among the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, then forcibly converted to Christianity.

After the death of her husband and brother-in-law, she was left in control of one of the largest mercantile fortunes in Europe. Her family fled from Portugal to Antwerp to Italy, always at risk of their property or persons being seized by the Inquisition or the temporal powers, who at one point schemed to kidnap her daughter and niece as marriage prizes.

Finally she found a place of refuge in Constantinople and openly reverted to Judaism. She devoted the rest of her life to safeguarding Jews, funding escape from Europe for other 'forced converts', funding rabbinical schools and good works in Israel.

Cecil Roth's writing style is a little dry, especially compared to the lush novelistic writing of modern historical non-fiction. But it was an amazing story, and I'm glad to have read it.

Great Book: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, by James Agee and Walker Evans

This is the first GB that I've impressed people with. Apparently James Agee isn't your typical airplane reading. It was quite a chore plodding through this condensed, difficult material, especially since I could have been watching HGTV instead (mmmm, JetBlue). But I did it, all for you, my twenty-seven loyal readers (Hi Mom!).

The Depression. Agee and Evans are sent down to Alabama on a magazine assignment. They were to write an article about the life of (white) tenant farmers. They befriended two tenant families and stayed with them for four weeks, taking pictures and notes. The resulting materials took years to wrestle into shape and was utterly unsuitable for publication in article format. Eventually it came out as a book, and achieved no great success until it was taken up by the social revolutionaries who made cult classics out of Stranger in a Strange Land and The Hobbit.

It's challenging material, but very enjoyable as well. Agee excels at evoking the momentary and fleeting sensations that make up the bulk of daily existence; those quiet moments when one extends ones consciousness and feels connected to the future, the past, and above all, the present.

He writes in minute detail about the lives of these families, from the stage settings of clothing, furnishings, housings, and associated squalor, to the unending labor and dirt and ignorance and withered dreams.

He writes with an obvious love for his subjects and doesn't spare himself a turn under the penetrating literary eye. He writes about them with an extraordinary affection, describing without judgment or hypocrisy as well as, I think, any human being will ever be able to achieve.

The surprise was to me that he should write with such pain as well as love. There's a grandeur to his sweeping meditations on the chain of life, etc., but it's inevitably tinged with despair.

They are lost, these tenant farmers, lost beyond redemption, and so was he, and so is everyone.

His writing makes me think he was probably the kind of man who walked around with exposed nerves a lot of the time, and maybe drank a lot to dull the pain.

Reading Journal Entry: Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier


I came across a mention of Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, as one of the great romance novels, and thought to myself, I should really read that and see what the fuss is all about.

So I checked it out from the library and took it with me on the latest plane-hop. It makes excellent light reading and was very enjoyable.

The unnamed narrator becomes the second wife of Maxim de Winter; Rebecca the brilliant and beautiful deceased first wife who haunts them both.

It's one of those books with a lovely twist in it; I wasn't surprised by it because, I realized about halfway through, I had in fact already read it.

It gets worse. I mentioned to my Mom what I was reading, and she said, "Oh, that's one of your favorites, isn't it?" Yes, at one point this was one of my favorite books.

My guess would be that I originally read it in high school or college (when I would have had most in common with the young and unattractive narrator).

Ten years later I don't even remember it was in my hands.

I am going senile.

This is why I started blogging, you know, if I don't write things down they just stream right through my brain!

Spoileriffic bits:

Du Maurier wrote this in the late thirties and gee, things sure have changed. Rebecca doesn't work nearly so well as a villainess in an age where the Prince of Wales has been divorced and promiscuity doesn't seem such a great excuse for murder any more. What about the poor wife? people will say, thinks the narrator, when it looks like Maxim will go down for his crime. Well, what about the poor wife?

I have no sympathy for poor murdering Max.

I do think it has one of the BEST ending lines.


I'm on the road and don'treally have computer acess today and tomorrow. What you have to look forward to when I get back:

I give you: the last 3 books of the week. In abbreviated form.

Man, I'm behind.

I'm lucky I have some short books saved up. And I can't even muster the energy to review them properly. I like them all a lot. That's less interesting than talking about books I don't like anyhow, which is good, otherwise I might feel guilty.

Three Men In a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

I said pretty much everything I wanted to say about JKJ when reviewing Three Men On The Bummel last week.

Ditto with the review of Griffin & Sabine by Bantock. In the two below their correspondence, and odd love affair, continues. I felt the introduction of an odd menacing figure in the concluding Mean weakened the story; it just wasn't pulled together into the mythology of the pairs' relationship well enough. But that's a quibble, really.

Sabine's Notebook

The Golden Mean

The only interesting thing I have left to say about the above three books is that I own them all. Since I get 90% of my reading from the Seattle Public Library and I buy books about once in a blue moon, you know that means something. Moreover, these three have survived the culing process of four moves, two of them cross-country.

I can re-read Three Men In A Boat a hundred times and it will never stop being amusing and relaxing. I can take Bantock's books down from the shelf and leaf through them for a few seconds and get something new out of it each time I do, whether it's because I notice a new detail or because it just reads differently on a rainy spring day than it did on a crisp fall one.

They are well-beloved.

Passover snuck up on me.

Sorry about that.

I hosted a dinner for ten people, including two overnight guests, last night. It's amazing how that cuts into your reading time.

Reading Journal Entry: Lord Perfect, by Loretta Chase

Y'all know I'm usually a Loretta Chase fan. But somehow Lord Perfect didn't do it for me. Maybe it was the contrast with the fantastically vivid Gentle book A Sundial In a Grave that I just finished.

Whatever the reason, the romance in this one didn't come to life for me. It should have! I really liked Mr. Impossible, about our perfect hero Benedict's scapegrace younger brother. But Benedict is too proper. The sexual tension between him and the scandal-dogged Bathsheba didn't seem real to me, and still less did their giving in to it.

Certainly there was a nice adventure and some funny bits, but it just didn't deliver the frisson I was looking for.

Reading Journal Entry: A Sundial in a Grave, by Mary Gentle

This book is four days overdue at the library. Gentle is one of my favorite authors, but I didn't get around to reading this before it was due back. Someone else had requested it, so I couldn't renew it. I started to flip through it before heading over to drop it back off - and that was a mistake. Because within three pages I was totally and completely hooked. So I read this over the next three days at 30 cents per day, thank you very much.

Shockingly violent and extremely explicit. Such a nice relief from the tedium of today's do-gooder heroes. This is an adult book. Handle with care.

Rochefort is an expert swordsman, 40 years old, violent and reasonably ruthless, but loyal. He is in the service of Duc de Sully, a member of King Henri's court in France of 1610. The book begins with the Queen giving him an ultimatum - either the King dies or Sully dies, murdered by a double agent in his household. She underscores it by having his colleague's throat slit right in front of him.

And that's just the beginning. England. France. Japan. Witches. Samurai. Sodomy. Prognosticators. Shakespeare. One of the best examples of sexual tension ever written, and a set of wonderful, wonderful characters. Who I will not describe. Because I can not ruin this book for you. As a side bonus you get one of the most sophisticated literary treatments of rape I've ever read.

Egad, I just went back and edited out about six intances of 'ever', and there are still two left. I hope you're getting the idea.

read this book!

Reading Journal Entry: Three Men on the Bummel, by Jerome K. Jerome

Have I already reviewed Three Men In a Boat? No? Must re-read that next week, then.

Jerome K. Jerome is one of those rather obscure authors who well-read but small communities sieze upon and make their own. Three Men In A Boat was a huge success when it was originally published (in the late 19th century). J. K. J. has been mostly forgotten in the intervening time period except by, oddly enough, science fiction fans (see Have Space Suit Will Travel and To Say Nothing Of The Dog, both personal favorites). In my opinion, everyone who aspires to be truly well-read should enjoy Three Men In a Boat. I have enjoyed it often myself. It's probably the best book you've never read. And why, oh why, wasn't it on the list of Top Five Comic Novels that the WSJ issued last month? It's much funnier than Lucky Jim.

But as to the book I'm actually reviewing. I heard that Jerome had written a sequel of sorts and immediately looked it up. Written years later, Our Heroes J., George, and Harris have matured and settled down somewhat. They seek a change from the demoestic routine, and separate themselves from wives, children, and aunts for a bicycle tour of Germany.

As with Three Men In A Boat, Bummel is largely an exercise in digression and pardoy, but with a too-strong flavor of Teutonic jolliness. Germany in 1900 has never been more amusing, but that's not saying much, is it? The bits about the travails of travel and the 'ugly Englishman' abroad are v. v. good. But nothing can, I think, ever touch the freshness, the sweetness, the hilarity of the original.

This version is footnoted, which occasionally came in handy. But the footnotes were sadly lacking in humor. What we need is an annotated Three Men by Martin Gardner along the lines of the Annotated Alice.

I'm glad I read it. I'm glad it exists. But read Three Men In A Boat instead.

Reading Journal Entry: Crazy Hot by Tara Janzen

I saw mention of this new romance series by Tara Janzen at Bookseller Chick.

BC promised me 'non-stop trashy action'. So I headed down to the Bat Library and picked up Crazy Hot. Which, quite frankly, delivers.

Our heroine is looking for her lost paleontologist grandpa when she stumbles into the arms of her high school crush. Who is now a former fighter pilot/national hero/secret government operative bringing down a smuggling ring.

Guns! Gangsters! Fast cars! Dinosaur bones! Ravenous dogs! Deflowerings! Explosions! This romance has it all and more.

Cliches abound, but who cares? It's too fast paced for you to notice. My one quibble is with the secondary plotline - the punked-out artist kid sister who has painted dozens of hot naked men is not a virgin. She's just not. Sorry. Try again next time with that one, Tara! Meanwhile I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to talk to you about.

Update: I forgot to mention one thing. Condoms! Every sexual encounter featured a condom, front and center. Not enough romance novels feature condoms. I approve.

Reading Journal Entry: The Jane Austen Book Club

I've had the Jane Austen Book Club out from the library since Maxine recommended it to me two months ago. Now it can go back. My groaning shelves will thank me.

It's about a book group, several women and one man who read and discuss successively all the novels of Jane Austen. Fowler's feminist credentials definitely show in the choice of subject matter - one of the earliest respected female authors, a variety of married and unmarried women of differing ages, and a lesbian (yay lesbians!). Over the course of monthly discussions, we learn about each woman's history, and romance blossoms. Or not. Very appropriate to a discussion of Austen.

I loved the voice Fowler uses, a cool dispassionate storytelling that switches from first person plural (we) to singular to third and back again in flashbacks, meditations, adventures. I love the themes, and the cute little 'discussion questions' at the end of the book, each set posed by a different member of the club. I loved the dissections of the Austen novels, each one echoing questions I've had myself or raising new ones.

But the characterization was a little blurry. It got hard to tell the club members apart. And I didn't really see the point of a couple of them. Prudie's history of parental deception gave me a 'moment', but what else was she there for really? To have a book club member who was happily married, it seems, even if it's a bland passionless kind of union.

Lack of passion is the book's besetting sin. That's not really a surprise, since it's a criticism made of Jane Austen's work as well. These women (and men) don't want anything enough to grasp it fully, and the book suffers for it. There's no yelling, nor exuberance. There's a dry wit instead, and Fowler doesn't quite manage to give me the sense of emotions roiling beneath the surface that Austen excels at.

It's both fun and funny, but not fully satisfying.

Great Book: Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

My second Dickens, the first being David Copperfield.

Although I'd never read Great Expectations, I was pretty sure I knew all about it. Sadly, I was right.

Convict: check. Beautiful yet heartless Estella: check. Crazy Miss Havisham: check.

The set-up for Pip's future is so iconic that I've encountered it, in one guise or another (I actually remember seeing an animated version at some point) over and over again. Then Pip grew up and things starfted resolving themselves, but all the interesting stuff was over. Sure, the whole Magwitch-Estella connection was a surprise. But for the most part, the second half of the book was events playing themselves out.

I much preferred David Copperfield, both the book and the character.


Blooker Prizes

The Blooker Prizes (odious name) have been announced. Julie & Julia, reviewed in October, is the winner.

Since I haven't read any of the other short-listed entrants, I can confidently say that the committee made the right choice.

Reading Journal Entry: Griffin & Sabine by Nick Bantock

One of my favorite books of all time, a wonderful work of art. A best-seller in 1991 when it was originally released, this will still delight those who missed it the first time around. Seriously, I can't emphasize enough how fascinating this is.

The book is made up of the correspondence between two artists. The draw of the feeling of reading someone's mail, to the extent of being able to remove letters from envelopes, all built into the book, makes this an absolutely captivating reading experience.

The art is outstanding. Here's one of the postcards Griffin and Sabine exchange:

Highly recommended. Would make an excellent gift.